Japan survive Nishino's selection gamble but tougher test awaits
Conditions and context conspired to rob Volgograd of a fitting end to its World Cup hosting duties on Thursday, as the final match to be played in the city saw Japan advance to the round of 16 despite losing to eliminated Poland.
A temperature of 36°C upon kick-off precluded either team from forcing the issue, despite Japan needing to win to guarantee progression to the knockout stages.
The fact that a tie against one of two equally daunting opponents in the shape of England or Belgium appeared to await them, and the small matter that they would not learn which until later in the evening, may also have contributed to a lacklustre showing from the Samurai Blue.
Perhaps seeking to guarantee fresher legs in the next round, head coach Akira Nishino made six changes to his team and the gamble almost backfired spectacularly.
Japan struggled to replicate the organisation, coherent movement and crisp, efficient passing that characterised their surprise win over Colombia and creditable draw with Senegal.
Takashi Inui, the scorer of the first equaliser against Senegal but only introduced in the 65th minute here, was initially conspicuous through the absence of his direct running, while the respite afforded to regular captain Makoto Hasebe allowed Poland more freedom in midfield, particularly after the break, than they might have expected.
Fortunately for Nishino, Colombia's 1-0 win over Senegal in Samara and Japan's marginally superior disciplinary record over Aliou Cisse's team enabled them to sneak through in second place to book a meeting with the winners of Group G in Rostov-on-Don on Monday.
Meanwhile, although they were able to sign off with a consolation triumph here, what has happened to poor Poland at this event?
Just 24 months ago, Adam Nawalka's side finished level on points with Germany to progress from Group C at Euro 2016.
They won on penalties in the round of 16 against a Switzerland side who have proven their worth again here in Russia, before losing a last-eight shootout after holding firm in a battle of wills with eventual champions Portugal.
Poland were then comfortable winners of their qualifying group for this World Cup, ending that campaign with a five-point lead over Christian Eriksen's Denmark.
But they comprehensively failed to turn up at the tournament, losing 2-1 to Senegal and 3-0 to Colombia.
Even at Volgograd Arena, with the pressure off and only pride at stake, Nawalka's side struggled to show what they can do against a Japan team lacking familiarity, and had to rely on poor marking from the Samurai Blue at a set-piece to bag the winner through Jan Bednarek.
Despite signing off with a win, it was ultimately a frustrating first World Cup appearance for the likes of the highly rated Piotr Zielinski, but even more so Robert Lewandowski, who will be 30 in August and, despite his recent protestations to the contrary, is by no means guaranteed to be involved should Poland return to this stage in Qatar in 2022.
His disappointing tournament was encapsulated in a passage of play in the 74th minute, when his first goal of the event failed to arrive despite Kamil Grosicki's pass releasing the striker in behind Japan's exposed defence and putting the chance on a plate for him.
The Bayern Munich star will hope to do much better at Euro 2020, while Japan have far less time in which to seek improvement, as what is likely to be a far sterner examination looms at Rostov Arena early next week.